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Peer chat: Promoting conversation to combat girl abuse, sexual violence

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MAPEMBA—We developed training tools

Conversations are not a simple exchange of information between people; they can be so much more. However, the issue of who to converse with can sometimes be a problem to many, girls inclusive, resulting in cases where people suffer in silence.

In rural settings of the country, culture has been cited as one of the factors inflicting pain on girls. Sadly some of it is practiced secretly.

These harmful cultural practices can, if deep-rooted, result in teenage pregnancies and marriages, high school dropout rates and poverty.

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Apart from the cultural practices, Clara Zowe— from Traditional Authority (T/A) Kabunduli in Nkhata Bay District— cites peer pressure as another factor affecting girls’ chances of completing secondary education.

“Poor parenting also played a role,” she says.

On the cultural practices, Clara takes us to her village, where, when a girl reaches the puberty stage, she is locked up in her room for days on end.

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“As such, for over a week, a girl does not go to school and does not associate with anybody. The problem is that this practice puts the girl in the spotlight. Now, because we know each other in the villages, the girl becomes a target for boys and men and consequently she falls onto the trap of early pregnancy or even marriage,” she says.

Eneless Kamanga, from T/A Timbiri, concurs.

She adds that peer pressure is another silent devil that has pushed many girls into early marriage. Other girls have ended up becoming pregnant at a tender age.

Eneless, who is one of the girls from her area that sat Malawi School Certificate of Education examinations, argues that some girls fail to admit that they do not come from well-to-do families by living fancy lives.

“When they see their friend putting on better clothes, makeup or weaves, they do whatever they can to source money. Some end up developing sexual relationships with men and, consequently, they get pregnant and drop out of school,” she said.

Sometimes, these girls are victimized, even defiled, in their homes by uncles, stepfathers, blood relations and close friends but their mouths are forced shut, depending on situations.

“Some girls are afraid of letting the cat out of the bag because the abusers are often breadwinners. Sometimes, the victims keep quiet because they are not sure about where they can get helped. I have come across situations where a girl was being defiled by her stepfather but her mother could not do anything because he was the bread winner. The girl was suffering in silence and was always stressed up,” Clara says.

These two girls are mentors and their role is to encourage their peers to open up when they are meeting challenges in a bid to complete their education.

They have formed groups in their respective villages where they discuss pertinent issues affecting girls. These groups are called safe spaces.

The Safe Space Model forms part of activities under the Spotlight Initiative being implemented by the United Nations, the Government of Malawi, civil society organizations (CSOs) and other partners, with support from the European Union (EU).

One of the organisations is Girls Empowerment Network (Genet), which is working in Nkhata Bay District.

The model aims at building the capacity of mentors on safe space mentoring for greater uptake of sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence services.

According to Faith Mapemba, Genet Research and Monitoring Evaluation Coordinator, a safe space mentorship manual was developed to guide mentors in empowering adolescent girls and young women to exercise their sexual and reproductive health and rights and to prevent gender-based violence, including challenging harmful practices in communities.

Mapemba says safe space mentors are girl leaders who form a club and meet at places and times that are convenient to them to have sessions.

“It is in the sessions that girls talk about challenges they are facing and, through the girl leaders, solutions are found,” she says.

She adds that the girl leaders are able to know where to take matters for further help.

“The mentors are trained based on a certain tool. As such, they use the same tools when engaging fellow girls, who we call mentees. These mentees are trained for six months, then another cohort is taken on board. The aim is to make sure that more girls exercise their sexual and reproductive health rights and to prevent cases of gender-based violence,” she said.

According to United Nations Children’s Fund, Malawi features among 20 countries with the highest incidences of intimate partner violence.

It cites traditional practices such as child marriage and sexual initiation rituals as other factors giving Malawi a bad name.

However, while conceding that some cultures were being practices in secret, including that where girls are locked up in rooms when they come out of age, T/A Timbiri says he has done his best to stop such practices.

“People stopped locking girls up because I sensitised them to the disadvantage of doing so,” he says, adding: The practice was limiting the girls’ rights. Just imagine, girls were being kept in isolation for over seven days. But now we are saying even if a girl has come of age, she still has to go to school.”

The aim is to ensure that Malawi gets rid of the GBV menace.

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